If you’ve made it here, you are probably wondering how to become a lactation consultant. This article has been carefully written by those who have done just that and we’ve laid out for you here two different paths you can take to start a career as a certified lactation consultant. This guide will also answer questions such as how long does it take to become a lactation consultant, and provide you with the details you need to understand what you would do as a lactation consultant, what salary you can expect, and will help you to learn how to become an IBCLC or International Board Certified Lactation Consultant, which is the highest level of recognition for the profession.
What Does a Lactation Consultant Do?
A lactation consultant provides clinical services and instructional support for breastfeeding mothers, who may require assistance to achieve their personal infant care goals, in other words, a breastfeeding consultant. Their guidance and mentorship can be especially useful to first-time mothers, or to those who are having lactation issues or who suffer from health conditions that interfere with the practice or process of breastfeeding. They may counsel expectant mothers during the prenatal period as well, offering advice, encouragement, and important information about the benefits of breastfeeding.
Lactation consultants are trained and experienced medical specialists who offer a distinctive service. They may be employed by hospitals, clinics, lactation centers, or private physicians, or they may seek clients as independent contractors. Most (but not all) lactation consultants will obtain nursing degrees, and an even greater percentage will eventually seek certification through the International Board of Lactation Consultant Examiners (IBLCE), which signifies the highest level of expertise in the profession, the title of International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC).
How Much Does a Lactation Consultant Make?
As of 2020, the annual mean salary for lactation consultants was $84,383. This is approximately $11,000 higher than the mean wages for registered nurses of in categories (most lactation consultants are registered nurses, although this isn’t a hard and fast requirement for entrance into the profession). Lactation consultants who achieve International Board of Lactation Consultant Examiners (IBLCE) certification have a good chance to make more than this, as their services will be in the highest demand.
Specific job growth projections for lactation consultants are not currently available. However, the number of available jobs for registered nurses in general is expected to increase by seven percent between 2019 and 2029, and it is reasonable to expect the demand for lactation consultants to exceed this number.
How Long Does it Take to Become a Lactation Consultant?
The short answer is one to five years.
As you’ll see below, there are two common paths to becoming a lactation consultant, so the answer to the question of how long does it take to become a lactation consultant depends on which route you take.
The first path, as a registered nurse, can take up to five years to complete, while the second path, choosing a university certification/IBLCE certification path could help you land a position as a lactation consultant in one or two years.
How to Become a Lactation Consultant: A Step-by-Step Guide
PATH 1: Become a Registered Nurse and Specialize in Lactation Consultation
The traditional path to becoming a lactation consultant involves pursuing a degree in nursing. In path one, we address how to become a lactation specialist by this traditional route.
Step 1: Study for a Bachelor of Science Degree in Nursing
Lactation consultants are not required to be registered nurses. However, most lactation consultants who obtain employment at hospitals, birth centers, lactation centers, and physician’s offices will be registered nurses, at least for the time being. In a significant number of instances, job advertisements posted by these institutions or practitioners will specifically state that they only hire lactation consultants with nursing credentials.
An associate degree in nursing can theoretically land you a position as a registered nurse. However, if you plan to specialize in lactation consultation, a bachelor’s degree should be considered essential. If pursuing this specialty, you’ll need to take elective courses that cover important topics related to breastfeeding, human lactation, maternal health, and infant health, in addition to internship or externship experiences that occur under the direct supervision of a practicing lactation consultant. Since lactation consultation is not yet a prime focus of most academic nursing programs, universities that offer four-year degrees in nursing are likely the only ones that can offer you access to the required electives and specialized internships, most likely during your junior and senior years.
Before you considering enrolling in any four-year nursing program, you’ll want to check with that university’s nursing education department to make sure elective courses and internships are available that can enable and empower your career ambitions.
Also, when you plan your university curriculum you should keep in mind that the International Board of Lactation Consultant Examiners (IBLCE) has a standard set of academic requirements that must be met for practicing or aspiring lactation consultants who want to become IBLCE-certified. This includes 14 core college-level courses that cover various topics in health science and medical practice, which you must complete in addition to 90 hours of lactation-specific education. Therefore, you should consult with advisers in the nursing department of any university you’re considering, to discuss your options for designing an IBLCE-compatible study plan.
IBLCE certification isn’t mandatory for a lactation consultant, but that certification is considered the industry gold standard, and your employment options will dramatically expand once you have it.
Step 2: Take the National Council Licensing Examination for Registered Nurses
Having a Bachelor of Science degree in Nursing is all you’ll require to qualify to sit for the National Council Licensing Examination for Registered Nurses (the NCLEX-RN). When you pass this exam, you’ll be officially recognized as a registered nurse.
While your plan may be to obtain work as a lactation consultant immediately, your status as a registered nurse would qualify you to apply for other type of nursing positions, should employment as a lactation consultant prove difficult to obtain.
Step 3: Secure Entry-Level Employment as a Lactation Consultant
As a registered nurse with a background in lactation consulting and breastfeeding support, you may find entry-level employment in hospitals, lactation centers, birthing centers, private physician’s offices, or community health centers. If paid employment proves elusive, you can gain vital experience working as a volunteer lactation consultant for non-profit organizations that offer breastfeeding instruction and support, like Breastfeeding USA or Baby Café USA (which have local chapters in many cities).
Before being eligible to take your IBLCE certification exam, which will qualify you for promotions or more prestigious or well-compensated positions, you’ll need to gain at least 1,000 hours of work-related clinical experience offering lactation and breastfeeding consultancy services. Working full-time, this could be achieved in as little as six months, and experience gained as a volunteer consultant for IBLCE-sanctioned nonprofit organizations will count against the 1,000 hour total.
Step 4: Become Certified By the International Board of Lactation Consultant Examiners (IBLCE)
All lactation consultants should seek IBLCE certification and become an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC), even if they are able to land their initial position based on their credentials as a registered nurse. This certification will be required for most jobs you’ll be interested in over the course of your career, and even your entry-level employer may expect you to seek IBLCE certification as quickly as you’re eligible to do so.
To sit for the IBLCE exam, you’ll need to have completed:
- A group of 14 core courses that cover topics in health sciences education and medical practice
- 90 hours of lactation-specific education
- 1,000 hours of clinical experience offering breastfeeding counseling and lactation consulting services in a professional healthcare environment
Ideally, you’d be able to meet most of the IBLCE educational requirements in college, while pursuing your bachelor’s degree. But if there are still gaps, you may need to take continuing education courses, either in person or online, to fulfill those mandates.
Once you’ve passed your exam and achieved official recognition as an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant, you’ll have all the qualifications you need to seek higher level employment in your chosen profession. And that is how to become an IBCLC (International Board Certified Lactation Consultant), the highest status for a lactation consultant.
PATH 2: Prepare Directly for International Board of Lactation Consultant Examiners Certification
If you are wondering how do you become a lactation consultant in a shorter time and with less personal financial cost, then path number two may be right for you.
Step 1: Seek a University Certificate or Diploma in Lactation Consultancy
A limited number of universities (currently nine in seven states) offer accredited certificate or diploma programs for undergraduate students interested in a career as a lactation consultant. These multidisciplinary programs have been carefully customized to include all the coursework students need to meet the International Board of Lactation Consultant Examiners health sciences education requirements, and its lactation-specific educational prerequisites as well. Through extensive internship/externship initiatives, students will attain at least 300 hours of clinical practice before graduation, under the direct supervision of an IBLCE-certified lactation consultant.
The schools that presently offer IBLCE-friendly certificate or diploma programs include:
- University of California-San Diego, Extension
- Georgia Northwestern Technical College(Calhoun, Georgia)
- Henry Ford College (Detroit, Michigan)
- Johnson C. Smith University (Charlotte, North Carolina)
- North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (Greensboro, North Carolina)
- University of North Carolina, Gillings School of Global Public Health (Chapel Hill, North Carolina)
- Union Institute and University (Cincinnati, Ohio)
- Portland State University (Portland, Oregon)
- Drexel University (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)
While this list is currently short, it could expand significantly over the next few years, thanks to the growing popularity of lactation consultancy as a career option.
Many of those who choose this direct path to certification are working adults who’ve decided to make a career change, but aren’t interested in going through the long process of becoming a registered nurse. While the registered nurse path can take up to five years to complete before employment opportunities become available, choosing the university certification/IBLCE certification path could have you working as a lactation consultant in as little as a year.
Step 2: Take and Pass Your IBLCE Certification Exam
Each of the aforementioned academic programs has been granted the official IBLCE seal of approval. Those who complete them successfully become eligible to take the IBLCE certification exam immediately after graduation, and if they pass the exam they will be universally recognized as International Board Certified Lactation Consultants (IBCLC).
Step 3: Launch Your Career as a Lactation Consultant
At the present time, many healthcare providers who hire IBLCE-certified lactation consultants prefer candidates who are also registered nurses. This is beginning to change, but you should know going in that some of the hospitals, clinics, and private practitioners you might be interested in working for are unlikely to employ you if you haven’t achieved RN status.
Your chances of finding satisfactory employment will be much better if you’re geographically mobile and willing to work anywhere. You could also start your own private practice, offering lactation consultancy services independently of any particular healthcare provider. Since IBLCE certification represents the gold standard in the profession, you would have all the qualifications you need to take this step, if you’re ready to assume the risk and responsibility involved.
While there are not that many lactation consultants who’ve chosen the independent path, there are some and the number is growing. As people become more familiar with the important services offered by lactation consultants, trained professionals with a strong entrepreneurial bent may be well positioned to take advantage of the situation.
Pros and Cons of a Career as a Lactation Consultant
Pros of Becoming a Lactation Consultant
As a lactation consultant, you’ll have the opportunity to form close one-on-one relationships with clients that are far more intimate, personal, and respectful than the normal relationships that develop between healthcare providers and patients. Because the instruction and advice a lactation consultant offers is so important to the health of their babies, the women you work with will be highly motivated to listen to your instruction and follow your recommendations. The growth in demand for lactation consultants is likely to continue for quite some time and could even accelerate, which means you’ll likely find ample opportunities to secure better positions and pay raises as your career progresses.
Cons of Becoming a Lactation Consultant
If you follow the most common pathway to a career as a lactation consultant, by pursuing a nursing degree and later IBLCE certification, the process could take as much as five years to complete. Regardless of the approach you take to creating career opportunities, you’ll have to follow a strict and relatively inflexible academic curriculum to be eligible to sit for the IBLCE certification exam. Lactation consultants are expected to come up with solutions to a wide range of breastfeeding issues, and in some instances these solutions may prove elusive. The reasons for breastfeeding or lactation problems can take quite a bit of medical detective work to uncover, and definitive solutions may not always be forthcoming.
Important Characteristics of a Successful Lactation Consultant
Lactation consultants help women who are experiencing a major life transition. Therefore, it is important that they conduct themselves in a gentle, patient, and easygoing manner at all times. Lactation consultants must be good communicators and have well-developed people skills in general, so they can offer clear technical and personal advice that addresses all of the apprehensions and concerns of the new mothers they counsel.
Having chosen a career that combines elements of teaching and healthcare, successful lactation consultants know how to manage different types of responsibilities simultaneously. They must provide effective practical instruction in breastfeeding technique, solve breastfeeding or lactation problems as they arise, and closely monitor the health of both newborns and mothers, all at the same time. Rather than being intimidated by this immense responsibility, they most successful lactation consultants embrace it gladly and confidently. Good lactation consultants are self-confident and self-assured, and that attitude helps reassure new mothers who might otherwise be plagued by worry or anxiety.
The best lactation consultants are highly enthusiastic about their work. They view what they do less as a job and more as a calling. They take pride in the constructive role they play in helping mothers and newborns develop close and mutually beneficial connections. Successful lactation consultants know they’re providing a unique service while filling an important niche that might have been overlooked in the past, and that helps them remain compassionately engaged with their profession.
This guide on how to become a certified lactation consultant was written just for you in the hopes that it will provide you with a broad overview on the steps needed to begin a career as a lactation consultant, and to help you decide if this might be the profession for you. You may be wondering how much does it cost to become a lactation consultant, and unfortunately there really is no good answer to this question because the cost can vary wildly from school to school and depending on which path you choose above.
Breastfeeding is one of the most beautiful and touching interactions between a mother and child, and helps to forge their bond. Being able to assist in this process is an exciting and noble honor. So, if you have decided to move forward, we hope that you now know exactly how to become a breastfeeding consultant and wish you the best of luck in your career.